I’m a natural networker and I love meeting new people.
Not just making connections for my own business but finding out what makes them and their business tick and hopefully connecting them with someone who they can help or that can help them.
As an extrovert who spends the majority of my working life at a desk on my own, I also find networking events energising.
It’s a good chance to put on something other than my standard work uniform of jeans and a tee, it gets me out of the house and I usually find a friend or colleague to catch up with at the same time.
There’s just one thing that puts me off going and that’s the food!
I’m a person with multiple food allergies thanks to my auto immune condition of Hashimoto’s disease.
The list of things I can’t eat is almost as long as the list of things I can. Think paleo without the eggs, nuts and celebrity endorsements.
Food allergies and networking rarely go together.
I get it. The first 10 years of my career were spent in hospitality roles and I’ve organised events for 30, 300 and 3000 people.
When catering for large groups of people, a basic “per person budget” is provided and the organisers generally pick a few items off the menu. If it’s a sit down meal, in order to reduce the cost per person and to make it easier on the chef to cater for large numbers of people at once, a set menu is chosen.
That often means there is not a lot of wiggle room for people with allergies.
“So what’s the big deal” I hear you ask?
“Just bring your own” you suggest?
Well for a small business or a solopreneur it basically comes down to time and cost.
It’s rare that a catered event is free. The charge is mostly there to cover the venue and catering.
When you’re starting up, when networking can be critical to your success, you’re usually watching the pennies.
Most people wouldn’t be prepared to spend $50 a month on software they’re not going to able to use, so why would we want to pay for food we can’t eat (note can’t eat, not won’t eat).
We also can’t afford to get sick every time we eat something that wasn’t labelled correctly. Many of us work on our own so the buck stops with us, and if you’re still in startup mode, you’re unlikely to be covered for sick leave.
Venues are definitely a lot better than they used to be.
Most high end venues are more knowledgeable and flexible than ever before. I’ve recently had venues go out of their way to check all of my allergies and then deliver something delicious and special that I could safely eat.
This is all thanks to education and the efforts of the allergic that have gone before us, but, after surveying a group of my business owning comrades I’ve come to realise it’s more than just my issue. And it continues to be a problem for many of us trying to create a community and a support system face to face.
I asked some of the business owners with allergies I know to provide some stories of their experiences and have the following tips for event organisers and venues:
Most of us don’t care if the GF bread was in the freezer or is from a packet as long as it was kept separately and the toaster or kitchen tools weren’t contaminated.
Try to serve the same “amount” as the normal meals, we are not watching our weight, we’re avoiding allergens.
If providing allergy friendly options for the masses, clearly label the food with common allergens (the most common being, gluten, egg, nuts and dairy). Download my Allergy Alert Card template and show your customers the effort you’ve gone to.
When providing allergy friendly food for guests that have alerted you to their requirements, it’s a great idea to individually label them so no one else eats it by mistake.
Where possible, have them on a separate table.
Empower your front of house staff with clear information and guidelines so they don’t have to constantly refer back to the chef.
Adding the allergy friendly food to platters that include non allergy friendly food will be a waste of the time you’ve spent preparing it as many people have trouble with cross contamination.
We promise we’re not being painful on purpose, we’ll get sick if we consume the allergens.
And I can vouch for the criticality of those symptoms if care is not taken.
For people with Auto-Immune conditions like Coeliac, Hashimoto’s, Grave’s, Chrohn’s and rheumatoid arthritis, managing our diet is a huge part of managing our symptoms.
I’m not Coeliac, but a single piece of normal bread could have me in bed for days with fatigue.
Dairy is even worse for me, my eyelid swells up until I can’t see and my body fills with histamines.
I basically have to sleep it off for a couple of days while dosing up on steroids and antihistamines.
Don’t you just love this photo of me four hours after eating the mash potato that “definitely doesn’t have dairy in it”.
So how can we improve our allergy friendliness at networking events?
To the venues and organisers…
I want to thank those venues and organisers out there who put the effort in; to get educated, to test their culinary skills with unusual ingredients, to add a couple of extra items to a very long to-do list.
If you’re a business/ networking group in Australia that caters for allergy friendly networking, I’d love to hear from you and I’ll post it on my “Allergy Friendly Networking” list.
If you’re a venue or event organiser who wants to get educated, the Coeliac Society has some great online training on how you can be allergy friendly. While it focuses on being Coeliac aware, the practices could easily apply to other allergens.
To my fellow allergy sufferers:
I’d love to hear about your experiences as a small business owner with allergies at networking events so we can improve the experience for everyone involved.
Lynette embodies an intrinsic ability to save business owners money by delivering back the all-elusive “spare” time so they can use it to do what they love. She puts these principles into practice in her own business – Kits and Bits. Lynette is an avid genealogist and tango dancer.Lynette Delane
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